WASHINGTON — In Elk Grove, the local congressman is not backing the city's request for $250,000 in federal money for a new teen resource center, one of the city's top local projects.
That's because Republican Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River, who represents the city of Elk Grove, doesn't support earmarks, the money used to pay for special pet projects back home.
In Calistoga, the local congressman is trying to get Congress to approve $2 million for a new building that would house both a teen center and an art center.
That's because Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson of St. Helena, who represents the city of Calistoga, does support earmarks.
While Thompson is promoting 126 projects worth $309 million, Lungren is promoting none.
With the nation facing unprecedented deficits, spending on pet projects is dividing members of Congress and the constituents they represent.
Lungren is getting heat from local elected officials after he joined Republicans in approving a one-year moratorium on earmarks this year as a way to reduce government spending.
But he's unapologetic.
"Look, as broke as the state of California is right now, the federal government is more broke." Lungren said "I don't have free money to give away."
Democrats have not imposed a moratorium on their spending requests.
As a result, Republican Rep. Tom McClintock, who lives in Elk Grove but represents a Placer County-based district, is not asking for any earmarks, while Sacramento Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento wants Congress to fund 48 projects in her district.
"As a member of Congress, we share the responsibility for spending the federal dollars as well as playing a role in the allocation of it, particularly in your home district," Matsui said. "If anyone knows the needs of a home district, it's a member of Congress."
When Elk Grove Mayor Sophia Scherman got wind of the vote by the GOP caucus, she canceled the city's lobbying trip to Washington, "knowing that we were not going to be able to get anything out of it this year." But at a meeting of the City Council last week, members said they want to put pressure on Lungren to change his stance.
"You may not believe in earmarks, but everybody else does, so other jurisdictions are bringing home local projects … and getting money, and we aren't," said council member Jim Cooper. "And that's not fair."
Cooper said he's irked with Lungren, even though he has endorsed him in the past: "I like Dan a lot, but on that he's just dead wrong … . That really hurts us."
Earmarks have a long history in Congress, but they've come under increased attack in recent years as their use has exploded.
Opponents of earmarks argue that projects should be funded through Congress' normal appropriations process or through grant money, where funding for projects is decided on merits and not on the influence of a member of Congress.
Proponents say their constituents expect them to bring home the bacon and that they get the upper hand by writing in specific projects as part of the legislation.
This is the first year that Lungren, facing a well-funded Democratic election opponent, has not requested any earmarks. He said that Americans have made it clear that they want earmarks reined in.
"I think it is a violation of our oath of office to continue to place huge debt on our children and grandchildren as if that were not a reality," Lungren said.
While some elected officials are criticizing him, Lungren said his position has the backing of most of his constituents.
"I know what the average person is telling me," he said. "They're not criticizing me for this. They're saying, 'Right on. It's about time.' "
Matsui said she has turned down requests from some of Lungren's constituents to sponsor earmarks in his district. And she said more than half of the money she's requesting is for flood-control projects, which she said are essential to public safety.
"I stand by every single project that I have requested," Matsui said. "As far as money, there's nothing frivolous at all about that."
The offices of Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are still compiling their lists of this year's earmark requests.
Feinstein has two local projects in the works: $5.9 million for the California National Guard in Sacramento to install solar panels at four facilities in the state, and $15.5 million to replace the airfield fire station at Edwards Air Force Base, north of Los Angeles.
Boxer is seeking money for flood control, along with a $3 million request to replace sewer pipes in downtown Sacramento and $891,000 to finish building a maintenance shop at the former Sacramento Army Depot. Boxer "strongly supports the job creation" that comes from the local projects, said her spokesman, Zachary Coile.
While both Democratic senators are big fans of earmarks, all three GOP candidates running for Boxer's Senate seat this year – former Rep. Tom Campbell, former businesswoman Carly Fiorina and Assemblyman Chuck DeVore – say they should be done away with and would not seek them if elected.
Matsui said the earmarks are particularly important this year as state and local governments cut back on spending. She is seeking $250,000 to renovate a six-bed transitional house in Sacramento for Asian and Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence.
"I don't think that they'd be able to get money from the county or anyone else right now," Matsui said. "We're probably the only ones who can help them along."
Elk Grove city officials said they didn't even bother to contact Lungren's office when they had a conference call with the offices of Matsui, Feinstein and Boxer to pitch their projects this year.
Lungren said he has made it clear that the only local projects he'll support are those that can pass a "federal nexus test," such as an interstate highway project. And when local officials approach him for an earmark, he said he often asks them why they can't get local taxpayers to pay for a project.
"And they say, 'Well, they don't want to pay taxes on that,' " Lungren said. "And I say, 'Guess what? They're the same people that I represent.' "